CUBA/DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Celia & Johnny - Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco
Updated: Feb 15
Although ultimately a pan-Latin genre, Cruz’s Cuban origins shine through the first truly seminal salsa album
When one thinks about salsa stars who were instrumental in the early development of the genre in New York, one nationality of performer seems to crop up over and over again – Puerto Rican. Big names such as Bobby Cruz, Bobby Valentín, Roberto Roena, Hector Lavoe, and Willie Colón all were born on the island, with there also being a plethora of Nuyorican artists who were key players in the genre like Richie Ray, Eddie Palmieri, and Ray Barretto. Of course there was the occasional non-Puerto Rican salsa star, such as Panamanian Rubén Blades, but the majority of household names hailed from Puerto Rico. Thus, there is often a conception that despite the fact that salsa was invented to be a melting pot of Latin styles from merengue to pachanga to rumba, it often sounded like Puerto Rican jíbaro. However, as the first commercially successful album of its genre, since the term was coined by co-collaborator and Fania Records creator Johnny Pacheco, salsa as it was first popularly known seems to have its roots elsewhere.
“....much like Motown’s capacity to quash racial tensions, appealing to a mass-market regardless of race, Fania were able to do the same thing using the musical stylings of a nation which at the time many in the US would have felt diametrically opposed to”
Of course part of the beauty of salsa is its transnational influences that celebrate Latin identity, rather than focusing on national ones. That said, listening to this album it is hard to ignore how overtly Cuban sounding the record is. Obviously Cuba is a country with a range of musical styles and influences internally, but it is fascinating that in Fania’s first ever truly popular salsa record that the Cuban style is so overt within it. Why I find this so interesting is that much like Motown’s capacity to quash racial tensions, appealing to a mass-market regardless of race, Fania were able to do the same thing using the musical stylings of a nation which at the time many in the US would have felt diametrically opposed to. The preceding decade in the run up to the release of the album saw trade relations deteriorate, numerous assassination attempts to kill Cuban President Fidel Castro and various aircraft hijackings by both nations.
What Celia Cruz brought to the table was not just an infectious level of energy and raw vocal talent, but also a background in which she developed a mastery in Afro-Cuban musical styles. Even though she defected from her birthplace when she was touring Mexico in the 1960s she did not leave behind the traditions that made her into the star she proved to be on this album. Travelling with the group Sonora Matancera, with whom she honed the guaracha style for 15 years, she made her name as ‘La Guarachera de Cuba’. She then teamed up with legendary bandleader Tito Puente, adding a distinctively Cuban twang to their eight studio albums they worked on together. However, it was the Dominican founder of Fania who gave her vocals the chance to shine amidst a backdrop of music that she may have been more accustomed to when she was growing up in Matanzas.
The percussionist and flautist clearly uses guarancha and rumba beats to accompany Cruz on the album that make it function so perfectly. Listening to the hit song Quimbara with its rhetorical style and the fast pace of the bongo and conga drums give it an African-sounding edge that a lot of Puerto Rican infused salsa seems to lack. The beauty in highlighting the Afro-Cuban rhythms is that they extend the typical Latin sound to something more global. This is done effectively on numerous songs such as Toro Mata, Tengo El Idde and Canto A La Habana. That said, Cruz shows herself off as a balladeer at points, perhaps most notably with Vieja Luna. Her versatility, passion and joyful verve are what make her stand out in history as one of the greats – going onto to create such wonderful hits such as La Vida Es Un Carneval decades later. As for Pacheco, his legacy cannot be questioned, with Celia & Johnny just being the start of the wonderful journey that Fania Records went on to entertain the world with.